Endangering a Child

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Child endangerment refers to acts or omissions that place a minor in jeopardy or at risk of harm. These can be physical, emotional, or psychological. A parent leaving their toddler alone in a car on a hot day, for example, may be accused of endangering the child. Such behavior need not result in actual harm to the child; the mere potential for harm is enough.

The Harm the Law Seeks to Prevent

Governments, in an effort to protect the most vulnerable of their citizens, have laws against child endangerment. At its core, the legislative aim is to shield children from harm. They’re not just protecting physical well-being. The emotional and psychological ramifications of child endangerment can be profound. A single traumatic event in a child’s formative years can reverberate into adulthood.

Studies have consistently shown the negative impact of early exposure to dangerous situations on a child’s developmental trajectory. Adverse childhood experiences, including endangerment, correlate strongly with problems later in life, such as depression, addiction, and even criminal behavior.

By penalizing those who endanger children, lawmakers are sending a clear message about the kind of society they want to cultivate: one where the youngest members are safe, cared for, and free from preventable harm.

Classification of the Offense

In most legal codes, child endangerment is considered a felony, especially when it involves intentional conduct or recklessness. The severity of the punishment typically corresponds to the degree of risk or harm inflicted on the child. Severe cases may lead to imprisonment, while lesser instances might result in probation, fines, or mandated counseling.

Broader Criminal Categories

Endangering a child straddles multiple categories. Primarily, it’s a crime against persons since it directly impacts the child involved. Simultaneously, if endangerment involves property – like an unsupervised child causing damage – it could also be seen as a crime against property. It’s distinct from sexual crimes, though if endangerment has a sexual component, it becomes even more heinous and can be prosecuted under both headings.

Historical Origins of the Offense

Historically, endangering a child has roots in ancient legal codes. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest known legal documents from ancient Babylon (circa 1754 BCE), contains provisions concerned with the well-being and protection of children.

However, the specifics of child endangerment as a distinct offense can be more directly traced to English Common Law. Sir William Blackstone, a renowned legal scholar, wrote extensively about the protection of children in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. He opined on the responsibility of parents and guardians and stressed the role of the state in safeguarding the welfare of minors.

It was Blackstone’s work that laid the foundation for many modern legal codes, especially in English-speaking countries. Over time, as societies recognized the unique vulnerabilities of children, laws specifically addressing their endangerment became more refined and pervasive.

The Model Penal Code and Endangering a Child

MPC Definition of Endangering a Child

Under the Model Penal Code (MPC), child endangerment falls within the scope of offenses against the welfare of children. Specifically, the MPC §230.4 states:

Endangering Welfare of Children. (1) A parent, guardian, or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the child’s welfare by violating a duty of care, protection, or support. (2) An offense under this section is a misdemeanor of the second degree.

To understand this, let’s break it down. The MPC essentially states that anyone responsible for a child’s welfare, whether parent, guardian, or supervisor, commits an offense if they knowingly neglect their duties, placing the child’s well-being at risk.

Defenses Mentioned in the Model Penal Code

The Model Penal Code, in its broader provisions, lays out various defenses that a defendant might employ, depending on the specifics of the case. However, in relation to the endangerment of a child, the potential defenses might include:

  • Lack of Knowledge: As the MPC specifies “knowingly” in §230.4, one potential defense could be the lack of knowledge or awareness of the danger or risk to the child.
  • Necessity: In some cases, an individual might argue that their actions were necessary due to an impending greater harm. For example, leaving a child in a car momentarily to prevent an even more imminent threat.
  • Act of Another: If someone other than the defendant was primarily responsible for the endangerment, then the defendant might assert this defense.

Please note that while the MPC provides a broad framework, specific defenses would depend on individual state adaptations and case specifics.

Elements of the Crime: Endangering a Child

For a crime to be prosecuted, certain elements need to be present. In the case of endangering a child, these include:

  • Mens Rea (Guilty Mind): The individual must “knowingly” place a child at risk, indicating a level of intent or awareness.
  • Actus Reus (Guilty Act): There must be a concrete act of endangerment or a neglectful omission that jeopardizes the child’s welfare.
  • Concurrence: The guilty mind and guilty act must occur simultaneously. The individual must be aware of their neglectful act when they are committing it.
  • Causation: There should be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the defendant’s actions and the potential or actual harm to the child.
  • Harm: Though actual harm to the child isn’t necessary for prosecution, the potential for harm due to the defendant’s actions should be evident.
  • Attendant Circumstances: These are additional facts or conditions surrounding the crime that might intensify or mitigate it. For example, previous instances of child endangerment might exacerbate the current charge.


  • Blackstone, W. (1765-1769). Commentaries on the Laws of England (Vol. 1-4). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Lutz, D. (1990). The origins of American constitutionalism. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
  • McLennan, S. (2013). The harm paradox: Tort law and the unwanted child in an era of choice. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Model Penal Code (1985). Endangering Welfare of Children, §230.4. The American Law Institute.


Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  10/11/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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